April 23, 2010

Apples to Apples

Haunting the sea of what-if's along King Street or George Street it's hard not to be struck by how similar my day-to-day life and cultural and intellectual environment is in California to how it would probably be here in Sydney if I'd stayed — and how surprising that thought is to so many Australians I know. Yes, the details are mildly different, but a lot of the main cultural referents or political and intellectual icons are pretty similar, one way or another (the physical environment — well, that's another thing entirely…).

It's not that Sydney's a lot more American than it used to be (it is, screamingly and obviously so to my eyes, even down to trivial things like the signs in the Marlborough nowadays saying "Restrooms" instead of "Toilets"), it's that it's so easy and seductive here to compare suburban American knowledge of the rest of the world with a sophisticated urban Australian's view of it. The hardest thing to get across to people I know here is that "America"'s no more real than anything much else on TV, and that America's a lot more complex and elusive than most people give it credit for — and that in some very practical sense there really is no America, just a lot of very diverse states and communities that often have almost nothing in common. I usually joke that I don't live in America, I live in the Bay Area, but it's not really a joke — it's true, in that on a daily basis I (and virtually everyone I know in California) am not necessarily much closer to the "America" people here in Sydney "know" than they are (I still sometimes do a doubletake when I see an American flag on a building in Oakland).

And, of course, Californians I know are similarly full of funny stories about Australians who know everything about "America" but nothing at all about life in America (I'm constantly struck by how few of my acquaintances here, for example, don't understand that I don't live in LA (i.e. "California" to most UnCalifornians), I live in the Bay Area, and just what that might mean about the life I lead compared to the life they think I lead. I don't for example, drive a car on a daily basis — this seems to surprise people here).

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